The Traumatized Imagination: Creativity, Trauma and the Neurobiology of the Resilient Spirit
By Paula Thomson, Psy.D.
Trauma, Early attachment and Neurobiology:
Why do some people who suffered horrific childhoods lead productive lives and others are barely able to function? Why do some patients respond to treatment and others seem to remain destitute? Based on a convergence of research, early relational trauma not only impacts attachment pattern formation and resilience, but it also alters brain structure, function and gene expression. Neurovulnerability includes the concept of critical periods, literally a developmental window of time that is not repeated in which neurons, axons, dendrites, dendritic spines, myelin and synapses rapidly proliferate. During these critical periods, the hierarchically maturing brain is profoundly vulnerable to the environmental insults of abuse and / or neglect. Neurotoxicity, a state that provokes increased cell death, can occur at any time during the lifespan; however, when it happens during critical periods massive cell death results in the regions and circuits that are undergoing rapid growth. Through a process of neural plasticity and allostasis, the brain can adapt to neurotoxicity but the compensatory circuits are not as robust as the original circuits that were genetically programmed to function. Neurovulnerability and neurotoxicity directly impact the resilience of the individual.
The Creative Process and Creative Traits:
The creative process involves two distinct phases, inspiration and elaboration or integration, and these sequential phases may occur rapidly or alternate for months or even years depending on the project and the creative individual. The two phases employ different cognitive and affective strategies; the initial phase, inspiration, is comprised of divergent thinking, inductive reasoning and broad global focus. It involves less frontal activity which facilitates disinhibition of the sub-cortical regions allowing more subcortical information to enter the creative process. The second phase, elaboration, consists of convergent thinking, deductive reasoning and focused attention. Both phases engage the right and left hemispheres. The rights hemisphere is able to contextualize events through a process of balance, focus, self-awareness, self-reflection and self-monitoring and the left hemisphere applies learned rules, specificity, complexity and reason. We require both hemispheres to create content and form that shapes creative meaning.
The creative traits found within the individual include fantasy and image formation that operate within all sensory modalities; multiple cognitive strategies including associational fluency and broad attentional focus; sensitivity, intuition and aloofness; an ability to tolerate more emotional intensity, ambiguity and frustration; an ability to engage in novelty and the capacity to be motivated by intrinsic factors. It is important to remember that most or all of these creative traits must be present during the creative act; however, it doesn't mean that they are fundamental components of the individual's behavior during non-creative activities. This may explain why a higher proportion of geniuses have suffered mental illness and yet continue to produce creative work; they are able to access these traits during the creative process. Many theorists have also argued that the rare existence of highly creative individuals is not because one trait is unusual but rather that it is the confluence of multiple factors that operate during the creative process that is rare. During the creative process the individual must be dynamically able to fluidly engage multiple brain regions and rapidly shift between multiple neural circuitry patterns. Research has also clearly illustrated the paramount need for the creative individual to receive a solid knowledge base and skill set in his or her creative domain. Support must exist during the acquisition of these skills as well as during the individual's career. The starving artist does not perform well; most creative productivity occurs during conditions in which the creative individual resides in a supportive environment.
Trauma provokes affective numbing and 'psychic closing off' which limits the freedom of creative expression. Conversely, creativity can provide a powerful escape from an inescapable traumatic situation. Later in development, creativity may be engaged as a potent modality for healing the wounds inflicted during the traumatic relational interactions; however, alterations in brain structure and function may need to be addressed during the healing process. Early relational trauma affects all levels of functioning, including the vital life-affirming process of creativity.
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